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The baby and the baptismal water

02 April 2012

Bridget Nichols has questions about a review of initiation


The Journey of Christian Initiation: Theological and pastoral perspectives
Paul Avis, editor

Church House Publishing £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30

“JOURNEY” has been the Church of England’s metaphor of choice for the unfolding relationship with God inaugurated in baptism at least since work began to produce the Common Worship rites of baptism and con­firmation. This collection of essays by members of the Faith and Order Commission frequently applies the metaphor more narrowly to bapt­ism itself.

The motive is an honourable determination to account for the ritual separation of baptism and confirmation in Anglican practice, as a way of progressing in ecumen­ical conversations towards euchar­istic hospitality and the recognition of non-episcopal confirmation. If the Churches could see their theology and practice of initiation as the same journey undertaken by different routes, Paul Avis suggests, a more eirenic note might prevail.

The casualty of this view, along with other arguments for baptism as the foundation sacrament but not complete initiation (Harriet Harris), or the nuances of the 1549 Prayer Book confirmation rite’s “Send down thy Spirit” compared with 1552’s “Strengthen with thy Spirit” (Martin Davie), is baptism. Presented as a process, or a journey that proceeds towards confirmation, its strongest claim can be only ever that it is a rite of initiation, but not the rite of initiation.

It would require a much longer response than this to deal adequately with the many questions raised in consequence. To name just three: first, baptism has, historically been seen as part of a process, but as the end and not the beginning. While this model is based on adult baptism, it is important, for as long as it is maintained, to be honest about its nature.

A second question is that of perception. Those — especially the unchurched — who bring children for baptism understand what happens as an initiation. Attention to the speech acts of the Common Worship rite would confirm their impression.

Third, more discussion of the faith of the Church to balance the focus on individual faith might have distinguished the process culminat­ing in baptism from the journey that is the Christian life: “Baptism”, as the 1662 Prayer Book reminds us, “doth represent unto us our profes­sion, which is to follow the example of our Saviour Christ, and to be made like unto him.”

Dr Bridget Nichols is Lay Chaplain to the Bishop of Ely.

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